Climate change and world hunger: disparate problems with interrelated solutions

Figuring out how to deal with global climate change is only one part of what Jennifer Burney does. As if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she’s also fighting world hunger.

Burney, a professor of environmental science at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, has found that those two seemingly disparate goals complement each other quite well. To prove it, she has been doing fieldwork in some of the most far-flung and troubled regions of the world to help farmers maximize their crop yield while minimizing their negative impact on the earth.

Why farmers?

By some estimates, agriculture is responsible for a quarter to a third of the globe’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Farm-related emissions and negative environmental impacts come from a range of sources, including on-farm energy use and processing, land change (such as deforestation) and direct emissions from soils, livestock and rice.

The world’s food economy is made up of hundreds of millions of farms. “Everyone is making decisions based on the market landscape that they’re looking at — their own personal needs and environmental expectations,” Burney said.

Coming up with solutions can be complicated because patterns of climate change differ across agricultural regions. Burney explained: “Some areas of the world are being hit harder. Poor small farmers in the semi-arid regions are probably going to be hit the hardest and the soonest.”

Even as she’s tackling the big-picture environmental questions, on-the-ground fieldwork has kept the reality of human needs in the forefront of Burney’s mind.

“Working with people involved — that’s where the two sides come together,” Burney said.

Preserving the native habitat — and rolling with the climate

Burney is working with dairy farmers in Brazil to evaluate strategies for maximizing the amount of cattle feed that can be grown sustainably on relatively small plots of land. The goal is to boost local food security — in other words, to increase the supply of and access to food — and to boost the local food economy, all while preserving the native habitat.

It might sound like a tall order, but it’s the type of win-win solution she is helping to achieve in another project in northern Benin, West Africa, where Burney characterizes livelihoods as “the classic small-holder agriculture [model] — low productivity and low access to services.” It’s a place that has also been seeing climate change trends over the past few decades.

Harnessing the abundance of sunshine in the country, Burney designed and helped install three solar-powered irrigation systems in the semi-arid, northern part of the country, then trained a team to do more installations. To date, they've installed the systems on 11 village-scale farms, each one comprising a community of up to 40 farmers and their families.

As it turned out, the project was not only beneficial to the farmers and the environment, it was also the most economically feasible, as it didn’t depend on volatile fuel prices for motorized systems.

Burney had this to say of her work in Benin: “I’m in a place where food security is a real issue, climate change impacts are a real issue, and the best solution turns out to be one that is a win-win situation. You get adaptation through this mitigating pathway.”

Reducing pollution and improving agricultural productivity

The UC San Diego professor’s most recent work has looked at the impact of pollution on crop viability, including a project from last year that showed that short-lived pollutants like car exhaust and smog diminished wheat yields by a third in India.

Burney hopes to conduct similar studies in the United States and other places by harnessing satellite and ground-based data to map out exposures to these pollutants and to determine their impact on regional agricultural productivity.

“In the spirit of thinking of win-win solutions, if there were big gains to be made from mitigating some of the short-lived stuff, then that would change the cost-benefit analysis for some of these air pollution mitigation measures,” she said.

Leah Soleil, Brand Publishing Writer

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